Apostolic Succession

I try, normally, to limit blog posts to one per movie (per viewing), but I’m still thinking about The Apostle, so I thought I’d share a bit more. I can’t get that scene of “tag team” preaching out of my head. The extras on the DVD reveal that the preachers, other than Robert Duvall, were actual ministers. When Duvall comes on the stage, acting, these other men “catch on fire,” preaching to the small congregation gathered under the tent. They’re not acting. This juxtaposition of someone acting as a preacher sharing an actual revival with those who are actually preaching makes me wonder if there was any dissonance felt. Did anyone feel any compunction about really preaching after getting riled up by someone who was only pretending? Where is the line between fiction and fact here? Film and reality blend.

Apostleposter

The same kind of question occurred to me after watching The Witness. I’m not a Hollywood expert, but the rumors that circulated then (and I was in college at the time) were that some of the actors were actually Amish. They too, lived their actual faith while in the presence of actors, cameras, and a director. These films that use non-actors certainly score points for verisimilitude. Rev. Charles Johnson, for example, is really “in the spirit.” The scene of him, “coming down from the spirit,” Duvall reveals in the Making of segment, is real. This man, at least, had a spiritual experience in a fictional piece. The same, Duvall suggests, may apply to Sam in the final altar call. This was, he avers, real emotion, not acting. Does being saved in fiction count in real life?

Movies sometimes leave me wondering what is real. I suppose that’s part of the draw. Religious experience, like sex, is generally faked on film. Things that are sacred are felt to be off limits to the eyes of strangers with only voyeuristic interests. I’ve lived long enough to see photographs go from proof positive to Photoshop fantasy. We can’t believe what we see any more. How are we to comprehend films that portray religious experience? Did Robert Duvall actually save any sinners from Hell? Does it make a difference if an ersatz minister is the one who leads you there? What of a real minister who fails to convert the viewing audience? Films are not simple escapism, I know. And as I continue to wonder about saints and apostles, I’m going to have to try to understand what can be caught on celluloid and what can’t.

Amish Paradise

Once upon a time, intelligence could be found on cable networks such as Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet. Like higher education, however, these ventures soon learned that people do not want to be educated, but entertained. So it was that I found myself watching, with increasing bewilderment, Amish Mafia. The very discord of the title is intentional as the show “dramatizes” disagreements among the Anabaptist communities of central Pennsylvania. The result is coarse and seedy, and not a little salacious. And addictive.

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

Photo by it:Utente:TheCadExpert (Wikicommons)

I grew up not too far from several Amish communities, and I’ve visited Lancaster a time or two. Living a lifestyle that the vast majority of Americans would classify as boring, the Amish keep to themselves, constructing an existence based on strict religious principles and a rejection of modernity. Recently, however, the Amish have become a sexy topic for romances and fictional clashes between their traditional way of life and the high-tech world that surrounds them. For those of us who felt a kind of authenticity to The Witness, watching Mennonites lock and load their assault rifles to intimidate their rival construction workers, and, in the words of Weird Al Yankovic, “get[ting] medieval on your heinie,” Amish Mafia presents the viewer with a world of kidnapping, extortion, and shunning, all within one episode. Trashing-talking pietists climb into luxury cars and put drunken buggy drivers in straight-jackets where they’re hauled off to extreme Bible-reading therapy. This seemed nothing like the Amish I had learned about in classes on primitivist societies.

We like to watch the self-righteous crumble. Who doesn’t want to believe that they are about as good as their neighbor? Those of us in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa (from my experience) see the Amish occasionally, quietly living their lives without the amenities that define us. We resent that, yes, you can get along without cars, telephones, televisions, internet, and weapons. Who really needs well-made furniture and quilts to keep warm at night when you’ve got Ikea and a furnace like a locomotive in your basement? And they know their Bible. Goodie-two-shoes showing us something that many of us have suspected all along—authenticity comes from inside, not an electronic world we can’t touch. I don’t idealize the Amish. Their lifestyle takes discipline and a level of belief in a worldview that doesn’t match what I’ve been taught. But then, Amish Mafia also requires a gratuitous suspension of disbelief.

Hair Today

In what may be the most bizarre recent example of religiously motivated violence, the Associated Press reports that a breakaway Amish group is accused of the crime of haircutting. Amish beliefs about personal appearance are well known, and taking various biblical injunctions seriously, they believe cutting a man’s beard or a woman’s hair to be a sin. (Any Amish reading this, please correct me if I’m wrong.) The aptly named Sam Mullet, the leader of a breakaway Amish group (the article doesn’t specify the contention) has been charged with forceful barbering with intent to shave. Not himself, but other Amish men in Ohio. The Amish trace their roots back to the Anabaptist movement that only accepted adult baptism and would rebaptize those who were sprinkled as infants. They acquired other beliefs along the way such as hard work and industriousness, distinctive dress styles, and the shunning of electricity. They are devoted to pacifism.

The story, which Rod Serling would have been proud to air, has Mullet forcefully cutting the beards of men and the hair of women in another Amish community. The article doesn’t explain how Mullet took on his Delilah-esque treason, but after giving his enemies the Seville treatment, he took photos of his victims. The Amish don’t like pictures either. Apparently the Amish community is terrified of this mad shearing heretic. The mind reels attempting to conjure an image of the struggle or even what might have led to it. Where did the camera come from?

Religion, no matter the denomination, prescribes unusual behavior. What one society supposes to be normative is simply a matter of socialization. When you are brought up with, say, a man wearing a colorful brocade dress while breaking a translucent wafer over a goblet of wine and claiming it to be God, that seems perfectly normal. Anyone who tries to challenge or desecrate this rite would be designated an infidel, heathen, pagan, or worse. Many think the Anabaptists, whether Mennonite, Hutterite, or Amish, to be quaint and curious like forgotten lore. In fact, their religious beliefs go back to a venerable past. Images of The Witness flood to mind when reading how the FBI has become entangled in the barbarous act. Perhaps it is time for Mulder and Scully to make a reappearance. But just in case, perhaps they should sport some sturdy helmets and Kevlar, since reports are out that some Amish are sitting on the porches with shotguns, while one lurks in the shadow with his snipping scissors.